Fresh: rant

XIII.2 March + April 2006
Page: 5
Digital Citation

Pay attention!

Jonathan Arnowitz, Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson

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Fact: Silicon Valley is a rather special sort of place for software professionals, including engineers and HCI practitioners.

Fact: There's more postings now for senior job openings in design/HCI-related positions in the Valley than there have been since the Internet bubble burst.

Fact: Most software development companies are engineering-driven, and don't give an iota of credibility to design professionals (much less hire them).

back to top  So what's going on?

Lots of new software development? Not really. More emphasis on design? Not from what we can tell from interviewing stories far and wide. Not enough recent graduates to fill the needs with low entry salaries? Not really—because a. they're a selective bunch who don't all want to work for software companies, and b. they're not that cheap anymore anyway. You'd think we couldn't crank enough design grads out of school fast enough, given the shortage (oh?) that causes companies to offshore their usability efforts. But wait—Is anyone hiring people right out of school? Look closer: It's the old folks who are in demand! We chuckle at fate! Those of us over 30 who have been preparing second careers for the last ten years in anticipation of being laid off for having gray hair are getting a laugh (hopefully not the last). And, we're being quite useful in global usability strategies.

What good have we wrought? Most of us with ten or more years' experience came from a mixed bag of training and work history. Now we're seeing more graduates in our specific discipline—and this is perhaps good, perhaps bad. Software development practices have grown in interesting ways, from the classic waterfall to the XP-style unit-by-unit death march. Design practices haven't stood still, either. Hiring companies expect practitioners to show well-rounded portfolios including interaction, visual, and information design, as well as skill in multiple prototyping methods, where previously these efforts were handled by multiple specialists. Perhaps we should have paid more attention to those entry-level programming classes!

Changes happen over time but don't happen easily: Software engineering seems to fundamentally resist giving up its waterfall process for the more unnerving open-ended iterations of user-centered design. We agree with Bill Buxton in his treatise on software development, delivered at the Second International Conference on Usage-Centered Design (forUSE, Portsmouth, NH, October 2003) when he stated:

"My perspective is that the bulk of our industry is organized around the demonstrable myth that we know what we want at the start, and how to get it, and therefore build our process assuming that we will take an optimal, direct path to get there. Nonsense. The process must reflect that we don't know and acknowledge that the sooner we make errors and detect and fix them, the less (not more) the cost."

The seasoned practitioners (we pointedly refrain from calling them "old folks") have seen the pendulum of fads in engineering and design swing to and fro. We also have a fundamental belief that design takes time, insight, talent, and risk.

What makes companies unwilling to take risks on design? If companies don't relate design to any measure of product success, then they can't gauge whether or not design is important to their business. So first you have to shock your company into paying attention. What's cool about the iPod? It's the advertising, of course! Isn't that what hits you first? The support, the marketing, the packaging: all user experience. The industrial design, the interface, it's desktop companion: all user experience. Not one thing alone could float the huge machine that is iPod, but when you polish many of the facets of user experience and pay attention to them, you get great feedback; and that mitigates risk.

User-centered design is by purpose an open-ended process because you cannot guarantee where it will take you: that is both the necessity and beauty of the process. Couple it with understanding your market and your users through user research, and you have an unpredictable result gained through low-risk exploration. Use a fast development method and you can lower risk even further by enabling nimble changes. So why aren't HCI practitioners in positions of great influence in all software development companies, since we've clearly figured it all out?

To get the best out of user-centered design processes, it is necessary to pay attention and execute in a timely manner. All too often any user-centered design process appears too late in the process. Or, when it shows up, it is beset with much dilly-dallying (shilly-shallying, or shuffling of feet, or other euphemism with which you are familiar indicating a general inability to decide direction). Is it a lack of will to move over from the engineering driven to the user-centered design driven company? Or is it corporate risk aversion (financially couched, of course)? Or not enough seasoned practitioners in seats of influence to get the show going?

Is your company guilty of employing a multitude of HCI professionals, using them too late in the process, and growing them into tomorrow's janitorial caretakers of the interface? Damming up dikes and mopping up messes one technologically driven disaster after another isn't very satisfying work for people who are both analytical and creative. Products from companies like these stay afloat and sometimes make lots of money. But they never win design awards and rarely set a respectable level of accessibility and usability for their users. These companies gain piecemeal improvements on existing systems, yet they miss the innovative edge, the conceptual basis for making huge improvements in both user interaction and business value. Well, there's your answer: Not all software development companies care at all about the innovative edge. So you should work for one that does care.

While we're cursing the thought that the vast majority of people don't know that life could be much better with better design, let's not forget that there are also a whole lot of new companies that don't have an engineering-driven focus: They have an equally disastrous narrow market-driven tradition. These companies hire a lot of HCI practitioners and have them do part of the job: user research, prototyping, etc., very focused toward a specific market for a specific product. But they often miss a few extremely important steps: conceptual design, communication and critique of the concept, sophisticated task analysis, competitive research. Designs tuned to finely realize marketing dreams still need technical planning, staging of goals, and they need to pay attention to the architecture of the engineering and user experience. These companies gain a good implementation of function X, but they are missing the conceptual basis for making ongoing improvements in both user interaction and business value.

In short, regardless of which category a company falls into, they are really missing the point of why an HCI professional should be valuable to them. Engineering-driven or market-driven, HCI pros are a singularly expensive clean-up crew in a company that doesn't value user-centered design. And they're a creative force and a risk in a company that does.

Do you work for or know of a company that uses user-centered design as it was intended? Do you use open-ended processes? Do you create conceptual models? We are in search of companies that know how about and use user-centered design (and can prove it). Step forward! Brandish your tools! Assuming we get a critical mass of articles we would like to start a new column called "Know-How, Inc." We have a bit of time, so why don't you start your own new company right now, and let us know how you're doing? Be the first Know-How to appear in <interactions>. We're looking forward to hearing from you.—<eic>

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